When Google Earth first came out, I recall tracing the coast north of Bombay over a multitude of estuaries, farms and factories. On and on, past the ship cemeteries at Alang, past the island of Diu, past the bleakness of the Rann of Kutch until suddenly my virtual hand hovered over a large city spreading octopus-like from the coast, its tentacles reaching into the barren brown interior. The perpendicular orderliness of its seaside districts, the rambling chaos of its suburbs and the orthography of its labels told me that this was no Indian city. Political capitals are rarely the urban heart of a nation. The US, China, Australia and India have New York (or maybe LA), Shanghai, Sydney and Bombay respectively. Karachi, Pakistan’s urban heart is a city loaded with preconceptions when seen through Indian eyes.
Inskeep’s insightful book is a window for the curious into what is often claimed to be Bombay’s Pakistani topoganger. But with the subtitle Life and Death in Karachi, you know you are going to get more than just a walk in the proverbial park. Karachi is an appallingly violent city with ever-increasing bouts of sectarian strife. Inskeep notes that in 1947 when Karachi’s Hindus and Sikhs fled across the line of partition and the city became ostensibly less diverse, it also became more divisive. “In this expressly Islamic state, well over 90 percent of the populace shares the same basic faith, yet throughout Pakistan’s history, as we will see, that surface unity has masked great diversity and deep divisions. The divisions are especially evident in Karachi ...”
Inskeep attempts to pivot his narrative around a series of blasts on a single day in Karachi. On December 28, 2009, a bomb exploded during an Ashura procession by the Shia minority of the city followed by blasts at other places including a hospital. The suspicious riots that followed the blast seemed less oriented towards revenge and more towards clearing out retail occupants from valuable downtown property. This sets the tone for the remainder of Instant City, exploring Karachi’s history and the events over the last six decades which have led to the political-criminal-sectarian stranglehold over a city that was once supposed to be among the most pleasant in British India.
Karachi’s growth from just 400,000 in 1947 to over 14 million today makes it a perfect candidate for the label instant city but it is by no means the only one. Inskeep too draws a comparison with Bombay. “There are also divides between instant cities. Karachi residents know it, and feel it. It pains them. Mumbai has some of the same problems as Karachi, but it is seen as a city on the rise. Karachi has some of the same advantages as Mumbai, but is seen as a city in crisis.” I don’t see Bombay as an instant city in the same vein as Karachi. Bombay already had a population of 4 million in 1947. And Bombay, despite its diversity, is a poor representation of middle India whereas Karachi seems the perfect microcosm of Pakistan. So much so, that Inskeep can’t refer to the city’s past without talking about the history of Pakistan.
I found it interesting that the problems shared by the poor and disenfranchised and the lifestyles of the rich are the same across the developing world regardless of nationality. It’s great to see that Karachi has brave and committed people who work towards protecting its parks and civic spaces although sometimes paying for this passion with their lives. Others whimsically encourage communities to dig their own sewage lines instead of waiting listlessly for the city to provide utilities and infrastructure. What makes Karachi’s problems unique is the extent of corruption and political malaise in Pakistan, even by the standards of those at the bottom of the corruption stats.
However, Inskeep’s initial promise of tying everything in the book to that one day in December fizzles out in execution. He does return periodically to the Ashura bombing but this makes the book choppy and discordant rather than lending is some sort of unifying theme. Inskeep rambles but these deviations are interesting and relevant enough that they don’t detract from the book’s key message about the nature of instant cities. I also notice, not just in Instant City, but across a lot of different kinds of writing, the tendency to avoid directly criticising Islam while commenting about some aspect of its practice or culture. Usually, this takes the form of a negative observation followed by a positive affirmation about the religion. Inskeep is no exception to this quirk: “He wanted to follow a Muslim ideal of according full respect to non-Muslims (the implication here is of course the reverse), an ideal that is as old as Islam itself.” Why tag on that skewed aside at the end? Clearly, that’s not something the interviewee said. I feel like there is pressure on writers to portray the religion as peaceful, tolerant and blameless to balance out incidents that show how its followers demonstrate just the opposite. It smacks of something between self-censorship and trying very hard to prove the existence of fraternity and goodness. The number of times Inskeep used “the Hindu temple of Shiva and the shrine of Abdullah Shah Ghazi” in the same sentence was emblematic of the grasping of the straws I perceived with respect to pushing the case for something that may have been true in the past but no longer is.
On the whole though, Instant City is a curiosity quenching account of our neighbour’s largest and most intriguing metropolis.